The Chicago Syndicate: Duff Indictments a Story You Can Sink Teeth Into
The Mission Impossible Backpack

Sunday, September 28, 2003

Duff Indictments a Story You Can Sink Teeth Into

When the friends of the mayor of Chicago--friends from a family with connections to the Chicago Outfit--are about to be indicted by a federal grand jury in a $100 million affirmative-action contract fraud scheme, word gets around fast.

So last week, word about the Duffs fanned out from City Hall. But there were a couple hours to kill before U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald's Thursday news conference about the Duff financial empire. It was time for lunch; I was hungry and wanted to think this through. There was only one place to go. "You've just got to go to Gene's," said a friend and colleague. She meant my favorite steakhouse, and the Duffs' favorite steakhouse, Gene & Georgetti's.

Gene's is a hangout where information is traded, among politicians, insiders, reporters, wise-guys, salesmen, consultants, from the buttoned down to the gold chains crowd. And what makes it work is that they serve the Best Steak in the City, period. The service is impeccable without being showy and the drinks are honest. Gene's is a part of the old Chicago, the city as it was before so much of the downtown was turned into a theme park.

It's also the place where the Duffs came up to me about a year ago, their tough, hard eyes smiling. They asked me why they don't ever see my children playing in the front yard of my home in the suburbs. They asked it twice. But the columns didn't stop and neither did the news stories by the investigative reporters, or Tribune editorials about the mayor's friends. And here's why: This is not about getting personal with the mayor or the Duffs. Though the mayor has been a frequent target in my column, what drives the criticism is the obscene amounts of taxpayer dollars that go to his pals. In deal after deal after deal, the attitude is that his guys can take what they want and the people in the neighborhoods better shut up about it, while higher taxes put more and more pressure on families to pay for the deals.

It's not personal, it's business, and it's your money.

Mayor Richard Daley is an able politician and has done some good things, including taking personal responsibility for trying to improve the public schools. But he must also take personal responsibility for his friends who get rich on government contracts he controls, paid for by our tax dollars.

The Duff stories broke in 1999, when Tribune investigative reporters Ray Gibson, Andrew Martin and Laurie Cohen wrote about the Duffs' City Hall deals and their connections to Daley and the Outfit. You can find the archive of the stories available on the Tribune's Web site.

Much of what was alleged in the indictments was laid out in those stories: that the Duffs, who are white, ran phony front companies that got $100 million in city contracts that should have gone to firms owned by women or minorities.

Daley knew the Duffs were not minorities, even when he was a crime-fighting Cook County state's attorney. A Duff sits across from you, gives you campaign cash, pours a drink, it's reasonable to assume that even the mayor could tell whether the person was white or not.

Think back to how the media treated the late Mayor Harold Washington, when Washington's buddies were involved in contract scandals. Back then, even minor stories about corruption got sustained media attention, particularly from TV and radio, even if the dollar amounts were only chump change. Washington faced constant media pressure on corruption issues. TV crawled all over him for years.

"If I was white, you wouldn't be doing this to me," Washington said once, in a private moment, as he filched a smoke from me and we stood in a parking lot after a campaign stop. We argued about it, and I told him that since we were off the record, he didn't have to play the race card. "You don't know anything, do you?" he said. He was right. I was a kid, then. I didn't know. But when the Duff stories first broke, involving a white mayor and white guys getting rich, the Chicago media scrutiny wasn't as intense. TV news didn't hound Daley the way it hounded Washington. The mayor must appreciate the kindness.

I'm sure he also appreciates the new federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald. The feds have already outflanked former Govenor George Ryan's Republicans. Ryan himself is a target. And now the feds are moving toward Daley's Democratic City Hall.

The Daley-Duff relationship is not just a Tribune story anymore. A group of citizens--sworn as federal grand jurors--looked at the evidence. They didn't find a flaw in the system, as the city claims. They found a crime.

A couple friends and I talked of this at Gene's, about the change in things, about the importance of an independent federal prosecutor, about how the bipartisan political clique that runs this state tried to stop Fitzgerald's appointment in hopes of installing one of their own.

Just then, the cell phones began chirping and word of the Duff indictments began to spread through the bar.

We had our steaks medium rare. And they were tasty.

Thanks to John Kass

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